Advocating for our youth

Kelsey Brown and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at a Parliament event recognising child poverty...
Kelsey Brown and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at a Parliament event recognising child poverty reduction and wellbeing legislation. Photo: Supplied
Children have rights that are not being upheld and this must change, Kelsey Brown tells Kim Dungey. 

It was 2014 and Kelsey Brown's last day of volunteering at a Dunedin care and protection residence.

By sheer coincidence, it was one of the long-term residents' last day there as well.

"She was 17 so ageing out; about to go it alone," Brown explains.

"She was being let down by the State, as she had been many times. I was about to impart some advice to her when she beat me to it."

The girl told Brown, then a university student, to "never stop hearing and never stop helping". The words have stuck with her.

A senior adviser at the Office of the Children's Commissioner, Brown leads the Mai World team which hears from children and young people across the country and then advocates for and promotes their views.

In 2017, she led an engagement process with more than 1500 young people, later writing "Education Matters to Me", a report that revealed many children experienced racism at school.

More recently, she led the design and implementation of a large-scale engagement with more than 6000 children and young people on wellbeing. The report she co-authored, "What Makes A Good Life: Children and Young People's Views on Wellbeing", showed that most were enjoying many elements of wellbeing but up to a third faced challenges.

Both reports informed policy work, including the Government's draft child and youth wellbeing strategy. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern spoke about what she had learned at the United Nations. And the Ministry of Education was instructed to carry out widespread consultation as part of significant reform.

Not all children and young people in New Zealand were experiencing the childhood they should be, Brown said. Poverty, racism and discrimination were some of the reasons for this. Another was them not being respected or not being supported to participate fully and be listened to.

"Children have rights that are not being upheld and this must change."

The United Nations had made many recommendations about areas in which New Zealand could do better. Some of these related to increasing rates of child poverty, inadequate housing and social protection measures, and the country's unacceptably high rates of violence, abuse and neglect of children.

It was largely through volunteering at the CYF residence and the Dunedin Community Law Centre that Brown started to see how she could build a career around her passion - ensuring that young people have their voices heard and are able to achieve to their potential.

For as long as she could remember, she had spent time with children as a babysitter, friend or advocate, she said. She also had memories of going to Plunket as a 5-year-old with her mother, a Plunket nurse, and "being her little helper".

The children she had met over the years had taught her a lot.

After receiving an Otago Daily Times Class Act award in 2009, the former Otago Girls' High School pupil gained a law degree, an arts degree (in politics and history) and a postgraduate certificate in children's issues. She is now studying towards a master of law degree on children's participation rights across different legal settings.

The most enjoyable part of her "incredible" role was seeing children and young people's views reach their intended audience and have an influence on decisions.

"When I see that, I know I've done my job."

Brown, who has completed three half marathons in the past two years, said meeting her fiance, travelling overseas to visit her siblings and "being blessed with the absolute best friends", were personal highlights from the 10 years since she had left school.

The past decade had also taught her how lucky she was.

"I want to try to do everything I can to ensure that I use that privilege and open up platforms for others to be heard."


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